Thai public-health officials finally are acknowledging what many have speculated on for months: That the country’s economic collapse has sparked a shocking increase in suicides.
More than 2,551 Thais – and a fair few foreigners – killed themselves in the first half of 2020 –a 22 percent increase over the same period last year, according to newly released data from the country’s Mental Health Department.
The last time such a dramatic increase in the rate of suicides was documented was after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which saw millions of Thais lose their savings overnight.
“There had been an increase of 20-30 percent in suicides in the three years after the (1997) crisis,” said department chief Kiatiphum Wongrajit.
Thailand’s economy has faced colossal losses this year owing to severe downturns in the key tourism, services and export sectors. The Bank of Thailand predicts that the economy will likely shrink by nearly 10 percent by the end of this year compared to last year.
Many of the worst-affected people from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic have been low-income earners who have lost their jobs in recent months and can now ill afford to support themselves and their families with no steady incomes.
However, some health experts have noted that suicide is a complex psychological phenomenon in most cases and rarely has a single cause. Substance abuse, depression, problems in personal relationships and other causes all drive people to kill themselves or attempt to do so.
Chronic financial hardships can, however, exacerbate the psychological impact of other underlying cases and serve as “a trigger for suicide,” according to Amornthep Sachamuneewongse, a prominent mental health advocate who is developing a smartphone app as a suicide hotline.
“For example, if someone already has severe economic problems, then Covid-19 makes the situation more severe and puts them under more stress,” Amornthep said.
Already in March, just as a nationwide lockdown began to take effect in Thailand, a team of researchers at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand linked 38 suicide attempts, of which 28 resulted in deaths, to increased levels of stress from the unfolding pandemic and its economic impacts.
The researchers laid some of the blame for increasing despair among many Thais on inadequate government measures to help newly unemployed people in a country where an adequate social safety net is unavailable to most of the neediest people.
“Suicide cases indicate the government’s gross failure in handling the situation,” the Thai researchers said. “Some people were driven to take their own lives.”
A longer version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.